Pulling together

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh on what can be learned about teamwork from crew training. Are your night time thoughts haunted by prickly PE teachers, churlish caretakers, machiavellian mathematicians? What you need are team-building skills. There are books and courses for teachers and heads on team-building of course, but it can be at least as instructive to look at how people in other areas of life handle things.

One of the most riveting team building books of recent years is the account, recently re-issued in paperback, by Oxford University's veteran rowing coach Daniel Topolski, with Patrick Robinson, of the highly publicised and bitter events leading up to the 1987 boat race (True Blue, Bantam Pounds 7.99).

This was the year when a group of self-confident young American rowers who (rather like the in-coming teacher whose theme is "At my last school we did things so much better") decided that they knew more about everything than did the people who had been tackling the London tideway for decades. In common, again, with many other challengers, in staffrooms and around committee tables, they believed they were so important to eventual success that the leadership would give way to them.

Topolski's fascinating account of the patient attempts at compromise will ring many bells in senior management teams. His description of the brief meeting at which the Oxford president Donald MacDonald finally tackled the dissidents ("at a desk, with formal documents . . . an expensive pen . . . the symbols of authority, of organisation, of assumed command") is an object lesson in how, finally, to tell prickly and argumentative colleagues exactly where they stand. Perhaps I should have tried it on a few teachers I have known. The chief education officer would surely have lent me an expensive pen.

The reason why we learn so much from the Oxford experience is because the inexorable approach of Boat Race Day meant that nettles just had to be grasped. Education works on a longer time scale, and teaching team problems may grumble on for years. Urgencies exist for other teams, too.

Take the Red Arrows, the RAF's aerobatic display team, whose unanimity of purpose is on plain view. Clearly, weaknesses and disagreements could be disastrous, and yet it is inconceivable that each pilot has the same strengths, the same weaknesses, the same temperament. All of which means that there are general lessons to be learned.

Management consultant and amateur flying enthusiast Hilarie Owen certainly thought so. One day, at a business function, she heard Squadron Leader Les Garside-Beattie of the Red Arrows talking about what it was like to fly in close formation, "knowing that no-one would do anything silly, each relying on the other to do their job".

It immediately occurred to her that the key here was trust, and that "One of the biggest problems causing lack of communication, empowerment, teamwork and all the things causing ineffectiveness in organisations at all levels was lack of trust."

She went on to spend two successive years studying the Red Arrows at work, attending briefing sessions, and interviewing individuals, with the aim of finding out what it was that made the team hang together. She then put together a team building system, and wrote Creating Top Flight Teams (just published by Kogan Page Pounds 16.99).

The sheer clarity of purpose of the Red Arrows brings all of the teamwork issues in sharp focus. In the air, with nine planes wingtip to wingtip, it is easier than it is in a school staffroom to see why the most talented people should be giving support to colleagues rather than surging self-interestedly ahead. As one of the pilots put it to Hilarie Owen, "None of us wants to be seen doing badly. Here it's noticed by everyone. But I don't want to do better than the others, as it will show weaknesses. So there is a will for each to do their best."

The key to team building in the Red Arrows is complete frankness, coupled with the ability to receive criticism. At their briefings, therefore, the pilots are constantly offering criticism, and taking it; making suggestions and seeing them sometimes taken up, sometimes slapped down. Neither can the leader be immune from this. As one Red Arrow member put it, speaking of his leader, "Rank doesn't matter, he accepts criticism and suggestions."

Hilarie Owen writes "Handling - and even at times encouraging - the open expression of critical judgments, differing views and conflicting attitudes is part of teamwork. The more you reveal yourself to others, the more you will learn about yourself."

All very well of course - but what about the one who will not take criticism and knows best in spite of everything? Donald MacDonald knew what to do, even though he was tormented by sleepless nights and self-doubt. So do the leaders of the Red Arrows. One Red leader, reports Hilarie Owen, "Had to get rid of a pilot who didn't come up to the expected performance". However - and this is interesting in what is after all an operational unit in a disciplined service - he did not take the decision alone. "The decision was taken by the team and he (the leader) implemented it. Don't accept less than the standard of performance required. By not taking this stance, you are letting the team down."

In school, of course, you let down not just the team, but generations of children.

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